Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Location: Books & Such Central Valley Office, CA
We’re halfway through the week. To celebrate, I’m going to take a break from talking about marketing our books to address the question that comes up at every writing conference and on every writer’s forum. When it comes to book sales, how good is good?
I’ve heard the strangest theories of what constitutes success. For instance, this from Publishers Weekly, July 17, 2006: “Here’s the reality of the book industry: in 2004, 950,000 titles out of the 1.2 million tracked by Nielsen Bookscan sold fewer than 99 copies. Another 200,000 sold fewer than 1,000 copies. Only 25,000 sold more than 5,000 copies. The average book in America sells about 500 copies.”
This statistic is totally meaningless. That would mean that if 501 copies of your book sold you could say you have better than average sales. I’m guessing that statistic encompasses the avalanche of self-published books, poetry chapbooks run off on mimeograph machines, photo memory books made to commemorate your trip to Tuscany, family genealogies and who knows what else.
I know writers wish we could simply give a definitive answer like: 1 to 4,999 books sold = poor. 5,000 to 9,999 books sold = fair. 10,000 to 19,999 books sold = good. 20,000 and up = success. Wouldn’t that make it easy? Every writer could then spin his standing with confidence, “I’m more than halfway to success.” Or “I sold 9,890 books. If my publisher had just pushed a little harder I could have risen above mediocrity, but. . .” Believe me, if we had a simple yardstick by which to gauge success it would just create new questions, new problems.
Here’s why it depends:
- The number is different for every publisher. A small publisher may be delighted with sales of 4,000 books the first year where a bigger publisher will be disappointed with sales of 20,000 books.
- The time frame needs to be defined when talking about book sales. When writers talk about book sales they are often sloppy about defining the time frame. When they brag about the number of books sold are they talking about a year’s sales or the life of the book? When editors and agents talk about books sold, we are generally talking about the first twelve months unless we specify otherwise.
- There’s a difference between “Books in Print” and “Books Sold.” There can be a huge difference in these two figures, especially with mass market books. When an agent talks about a client’s statistics, we always talk about the actual number of books sold.
- There are often mitigating circumstances. Some books— like reference books, textbooks, commemorative books and other special projects– may sell in very small numbers but they still meet the expectations of the publisher. I imagine when the first edition of Audubon’s Birds of America was published with 400+ double elephant folio plates, no one planned on a huge printing. And yet, what a success– a tour de force.
So how can I know if the sales of my book are healthy? Let me give you a quick-and-dirty rule of thumb. If you earn back your advance before the end of twelve months you’ve exceeded expectations.
When your publisher offers an advance it’s rarely a number pulled out of a hat. They don’t get together in a meeting and say, “Let’s give him $20,000.00 because this is such a good book.” The editor or the team prepares a pro forma profit and loss analysis on your book. He estimates how many copies they can reasonably sell in the first twelve months. He looks at the royalty rate and estimates what your royalty income would be for that twelve-month period. That becomes the advance-against-royalties that you will be offered. There are always exceptions to the rule. Sometimes a publisher pays more for a book than they can reasonably hope to recoup in the first year because of a bidding war or an auction. Or perhaps they pay more to woo an author away from another house. Or maybe the book is one that fills a hole in their line. But for the most part, this rule of thumb will work.
If you want to set a definitive goal for successful book sales, here’s how to do it: Figure out roughly how much royalty you make per book. For our example let’s say your book’s cover price is $15.00. If you are paid on the net (the normal way it is accounted in CBA*) the store will probably buy the book for $9.00 (60% of cover price). Let’s say your royalty rate is 18%. You’ll make $1.62 on each book. If you were paid on cover price (the norm in ABA**) you’d figure $15.00 x 9% royalty (the royalty rate is different because it reflects cover price instead of net) and you’d come up with a per book royalty amount of about $1.35 per book. (In the real world, not all books will sell for full price but for for the sake of simplicity, we won’t complicate this.) So the formula would be: [Advance paid] divided by [royalty amount per book] equals [number of books needed to be sold to earn out].
Once you have your sales goal set, it’s time to get to work helping your publisher sell the book. Tomorrow and Friday we’ll talk specifics– those things that seem to be working and those things that don’t.
Any questions? Was this clear enough? Does it answer the question, how good is good? Do you see why an agent who’s trying to help you build a long career will sometimes be conservative about pushing for a too-large advance? Did you understand the two different ways of accounting– cover price or net price?
*The Christian Booksellers Association, commonly called the Christian market
**American Booksellers Association, commonly called the general market
This is really, really helpful. Thanks for breaking it down!
No questions. 🙂
Thanks, Wendy. Yes, this was clear.
I plan on doing all I can to market my book, if I am blessed enough to get that far. :o)
Oh, the number crunching of it all… . Thanks for the
great post, clarifying such a vague concept. 🙂
Melissa K. Norris
This was a nice breakdown and a reminder not to compare ourselves (booksales) to others. We should only be trying to to do better with each book and not worrying about selling more than Mary Sue for the sake of bragging rights.
Looking forward to the rest of this week’s posts. Thanks, Wendy.
Thanks for taking time of writing and sharing helpful information on this topic. I must say, a lot of self-published authors have this question in mind. You have raised strong points here.
Thanks, Wendy, for this great post. Love the way you put this in perspective — and with math, too! 🙂 Have a great day!
Take that all you English major who thought you’d never need math! And it’s a word problem, too. Thanks for the breakdown, Wendy.
Sarah, it’s a stretch for those us who are math-challenged. I wrote this blog in the wee hours of the morning when I did not have my CFO/husband to check my math. Scare-ee.
But we need to understand the dynamics of how these things work and trust me, there’s a lot of misunderstanding. I’ve heard authors who should know better say that ABA authors make more money because their royalty is based on cover price not net price. That would be true if the royalty rate were the same for both but, duh. Royalties in the ABA reflect the different accounting model as do royalties in the CBA.
This is great information to have. Thanks for breaking it down, Wendy.
Wendy, well said. One sad bit of clarification on the article talking about the average book selling less than 500 copies. The qualifier is an ISBN. The research that was done on boo sales was taken from the universe of all books that had an ISBN, the homemade, photo memory books werent included.
VERY, VERY helpful! Thank you, Wendy!
Very interesting, Wendy. Thanks for taking the time to share this. Sounds like maybe one subjective indicator of good sales is whether an author’s particular publisher will welcome him/her back when the next manuscript is ready!
Thanks Wendy for taking the time to write this post, with all the numbers. The numbers show how difficult it is to become a best selling author. Your CFO/Husband will be proud at you explanining all of this to us. I guess we are all waiting with anticipation for the tips on Friday.
I was one of the fortunate ones to have my first novel published, but there was so much I didn’t know that I didn’t even know what questions to ask. Awhile back it occurred to me that I may not have made great choices regarding how to sell my novel. Because I have a thriving and profitable home-school business, I already had a website in place for purchasing my materials. Adding my novel to the website was easy and we already were shipping materials every day, so taking orders for the novel was a fit for us. But the novels I sold personally never showed up on the royalty statements. Not that I thought I should be paid royalties on top of my discount, but that also meant my agent did not receive anything for the novels sold through my website. I did not earn back my advance, with this accounting, but I continue to sell more novels than the publisher does. I have a personal profit, but I don’t think my publisher does and my agent definitely doesn’t. Should I not have offered my novel on my website for the sake of the publisher and agent? I want the next book to be a blessing for all.
Barbara, you are asking some key questions. Good for you to explore this. The question of author-selling is a thorny one– technically you are competing with the bookstores– but so far, most publishers and agents think the benefits outweigh the risks.
We keep trying to get “buzz” going. By getting your books out there, hopefully word of mouth will build and get you closer to that tipping point.
Talk to your agent about this– see what he/she thinks.
Wendy, your posts have been so helpful! Thanks so much for taking the time to dig into important topics that authors need to understand.
Jonathan, that is sad, isn’t it. It’s easy for me to dismiss the self-published and the minuscule independent publishers but each sale of a book is a commitment of a reader’s time and resources and those are finite, unfortunately.
So many bemoan the gatekeepers in publishing but a wild free-for-all is going to raise all kinds of new issues for publishers, writers and readers.
The quote from Publishers Weekly depressed me when I first heard it a year or so ago. It was being presented verbally and all I took away was how few books were selling.
Reading it today, I don’t see it as negatively as before, though still a challenge – *if* I’m reading it correctly.
The total of 1.2 million books are the TOTAL number of books being tracked, whether just released or released 5 years ago, 10 years ago, or longer. Most books have a finite shelf life before they would be expected to be in that sub-100 category.
The data I’d be interested in seeing is something along the lines of “Of the ## books released within the last 3 years, __% have sold over 5000, another ___% between 2500-5000, …
This way we’re looking at an apples to apples comparison in a more timely fashion. Some of those books that sold 99 copies may have sold hundreds of thousands a 12 years ago when it was released and peaked.
The business side of crating books is absolutely fascinating – thanks for sharing this in a clear, concise way (and in the wee hours of the morning – good on you).